Archive | October 2013

Oh, Carp!

Here’s some scary news just in time for Halloween. The only grass carp in Ohio’s waters were supposed to be sterile. But research has just confirmed that some of the fish found in Ohio’s Sandusky River last year can reproduce. And they themselves came from natural reproduction in the Lake Erie basin.

Grass carp is a type of Asian carp. Like other Asian carp, it’s an invasive species. Invasive species are not native to areas where they cause problems. They can take over ecosystems by upsetting the balance of the native species.

Having watched way too many science fiction movies, I wondered whether this was like Jurassic Park. In that movie based on Michael Crichton’s novel, supposedly sterile dinosaurs at a theme park wind up being able to reproduce after all.

However, there’s no evidence of that. “It’s much more likely that fertile diploid fish were introduced into the system at a high enough rate for them to finally reproduce,” Duane Chapman at the U.S. Geological Survey says.

Chapman and other scientists at USGS and Bowling Green State University did the research that was just published in the Journal of Great Lakes Research. Diploid means that an organism has two sets of each gene in its cells. That’s necessary in order for sexual reproduction to take place.

Nonetheless, the news is still scary. The findings heighten fears that the species could upset the ecological balance in the Great Lakes.

Grass carp breed like mosquitoes and eat like hogs,” says Kristy Meyer, a scientist at The Ohio Environmental Council. The research also suggests that even more destructive species of Asian carp could establish themselves in the basin.

That would be a real nightmare.

Image by Dezidor from Wikimedia.

Image by Dezidor from Wikimedia.

Wash Your Hands Anyway

Photo Credit: CDC/Amanda Mills

Photo Credit: CDC/Amanda Mills

New research shows that hand washing can make you feel better after taking a tough test. But you might not do as well next time as those who didn’t bother washing up afterward.

As a test, psychologist Kai Kaspar at the University of Cologne had groups of people try to do impossible tasks. Afterward, one group of people washed their hands. The other did not.

The hand washing group felt more optimistic that they would do better on the test next time. On the retest, however, the clean-hands group did worse than the other group.

Kaspar suggests that physical cleansing can help us deal with failure. However, it might also reduce the motivation to try harder next time. Kaspar says more research should be done.

I’m all for studies that look into how rituals might affect our perception and performance. But I hope students don’t decide to avoid hand washing for fear it might mess up whatever retest they might take. The idea that teens would come in to retake the SATs with grime-coated hands is disturbing.

If anything, we need to remind everyone that hand washing is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of disease. “Clean hands save lives,” says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If you need a refresher course, the Mayo Clinic offers some how-to tips. There’s no formal test afterward, though. I don’t even want to start thinking how Kaspar’s research results would apply to a test on hand washing itself.

Just remember: Washing hands reduces your chances of getting sick. And feeling sick and miserable won’t help you do better on any test you face—in the classroom or in the course of daily life.

So lather up, everyone. Let’s keep those hands clean!

How the Beat Helps Keep You from Feeling Beat

Do you have to have your tunes when you work out? It turns out that music does more than distract us. A new study shows that exercising with music can make our moves more coordinated. Basically, the music’s beat helps keep us from feeling so beat.

In the study, scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences tested subjects under two conditions. The first scenario had them working out on exercise machines with music playing in the background. In the second situation, the machines were rigged so that using the machine got music to play.

Credit: Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Credit: Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Sciences

Most people felt less severe strain in the second situation, where their use of the machine made music interactively. The scientists also measured oxygen intake, changes in muscle tension, and other data. They found that people used less energy when their use of the machines played the music. In other words, making music helped people exercise more effectively.

“These findings are a breakthrough because they decisively help to understand the therapeutic power of music,” said Thomas Fritz, one of the scientists who worked on the study. In the press release announcing the findings he added, “Making music makes physical exertion less exhausting.” The study appears in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This is all great news, but let’s hope gyms don’t decide to rig all their machines the way they were in this study. Otherwise, a crowded gym could have us all working out to cacophony. That would not be music to our ears.

A Very Public Apology

My last post castigated Biology Online for the actions of an employee who was totally wrong in making a slur against a woman who declined a project. This morning, I was glad to learn that Biology Online has done the right thing. It has apologized to Danielle Lee by email. It has posted a very public apology on its website. And it has fired the employee who made the slur.

Sexist remarks and slurs are serious. They insult the women at whom they are directed. They create a hostile work environment–even when that work environment is spread out among a network of freelancers and remote employees.

In a broader sense, sexist remarks and slurs hinder the general advancement of women among the ranks of professionals. People don’t often talk about the “glass ceiling” these days–the idea that professions may let most women rise only so high, but no higher. And as Elaine Wherry recently pointed out in a Wall Street Journal blog, people are often more subtle now.

Consequently, when slurs do surface, they cannot be tolerated. Otherwise, they reinforce the unseen barriers.

Biology Online’s response was the proper one from a legal perspective. It was also the right thing to do. I’d like to hope they’d have done the right thing even if the case hadn’t become very public. And we should all hope incidents like this don’t happen again.

Totally Wrong

Thanks to Wired for carrying this blog post: http://www.wired.com/wiredscience/2013/10/on-science-communication-respect-and-coming-back-from-mistakes/

It is NEVER appropriate for anyone in a professional position to call another professional a whore. That editor should be disciplined by his employer. And a very public apology–and perhaps even compensation–is due to the science journalist.

“Tinted a Bit Darkly”

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Image (c) Kathiann M. Kowalski

Genetics makes some people more likely to see things in a negative light. So says a new study by psychology professor Rebecca Todd at the University of British Columbia.

In the study, 200 people viewed a series of words in quick succession. Some words had positive connotations, some were negative, and others were neutral. Afterword, they were tested on what they had seen.

People with a certain gene variant, called the ADRA2b deletion variant, were more likely to perceive the negative words than those who did not have it.

In explaining the study results, Todd suggested that people with the gene variant might be more likely to focus on possible hazards outdoors rather than just enjoying the beauty of nature. Or, perhaps they might look out at a crowd and be more likely to notice angry faces.

Just as people talk about optimists seeing the world through rose-colored glasses, Todd suggests the gene variant could influence someone’s general outlook on life. “This is like seeing the world through gene-colored glasses—tinted a bit darkly,” she says.

Todd’s study notes that the gene variant has also been associated with having more intrusive memories after a traumatic event. The research might help explain why that happens. Ideally, it could help therapists who counsel people recovering from such events.

Nonetheless, I’m wondering if the results are really as dark as Todd proposes. In her study, people with and without the gene variant both perceived positive words better than neutral words. Maybe people with the gene variant are just better disposed to perceive a range of emotionally-laden things.

In any case, whether we have the gene should not predetermine how we respond to something. Every day, we’re likely to perceive something negative happening. However, how we respond is up to us.

Ignatius of Loyola alluded to this when he talked about everything in life being an opportunity to turn towards God for consolation or away from God in desolation. More broadly, it’s the concept of free will. Or, if you’re not religious, just think about it as having a choice.

Maybe genes do have something to do with what we perceive and remember. But I like to think I have a choice in how I act. The challenge is to choose wisely.

What’s Newsworthy Now?

Sometimes journalists start out writing one story. Then the focus shifts.

Two weeks ago, the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication released a survey on Ohioans’ attitudes about climate change. The article I initially started out to write would have led with the survey results. Then I would have put them in the context of what’s happening with energy policy in the state.

Then the Ohio Senate Public Utilities Committee met last week and began hearing testimony on a 90-page bill that would substantially relax what counts for the state’s energy efficiency and renewable energy standards. Now my article’s focus is on the terms of the bill and stakeholders’ responses to it.

The survey still matters, of course. And I discuss it in the context of the pending bill.

After all, while Bob and Betty Buckeye won’t vote directly on the pending bill, they will be deciding whether to re-elect various legislators or not. In the survey, a majority of Ohioans say they want more—not less—action from the state government to deal with climate change. Such actions would include reducing greenhouse gases with renewable energy and reduced energy demand.

Here’s the story as it appears in today’s Midwest Energy News:

Critics: Ohio energy bill boon for utilities, bad for consumers

Read it and decide what you think.